Editor’s note: This commentary is by Bryan Alexander, a futurist, researcher, writer, speaker, consultant and teacher from Ripton, who works in the field of how technology transforms education. In 2013 he launched Bryan Alexander Consulting, LLC. His two most recent books are “Gearing Up For Learning Beyond K-12” and “The New Digital Storytelling.”Vermont’s new governor has given his first budget address. It is, among other things, bad news for our state’s broadband situation.
Our internet speeds tend to be low, which is typical for a rural American state. For several years Montpelier led a drive to raise broadband rates, funding multiple projects, but that petered out recently, leaving Vermont a patchwork of several broadband oases, some satellite-powered zones, and some speeds so slow as to fall below the FCC’s definition of “broadband.” Cellphone coverage is a connectivity option in parts of the U.S., but is a rare option here, given spotty coverage and, all too often, scant bars.
Improving rural broadband became a state election issue late in 2016. Candidate Sue Minter urged a general improvement. Then-candidate Phil Scott disagreed, arguing that it was too expensive and difficult a challenge for a financially challenged state to address.
Now as newly installed governor, Scott held fast to this belief, as shown in his 2017 budget address.
The speech’s theme was for general financial probity and restraint. No funds are to be increased for any crying need, from Lake Champlain cleanup to mitigating the opiate crisis. There is no room for investing in improving our state’s low bandwidth.
There is one exception to this point: a call for funds to be spent improving broadband speeds and technology in public schools: “With additional investments in innovation, modernization, and distance learning in our K-through-12 system, I hope to inspire fresh thinking in our classrooms, fund technology and training for school districts, and connect every school in Vermont with high-speed Internet access,” Scott said.
Low speeds cramp business development, disincentivize new businesses from investing in Vermont, and fail to attract young people who increasingly rely on broadband for most aspects of life.
This connects to specific curricular fields: “To promote more interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) – as well as traditional trades – I’ve proposed grants to support coding camps, and boost Career Technical Education programs,” Scott said.
This is a fine idea. Yet given that Gov. Scott also urged schools to cut spending, it’s not clear that boards will be able to fund that technological request. Aside from this measure, Vermont will continue to languish with lame broadband speeds.
Scott’s logic is that trimming or holding state spending steady will keep taxes from increasing, which will in turn encourage business growth, which then improves the state’s overall economy, including tax revenues. Unfortunately, this will not elicit internet connection improvements, as we now know that the market has stalled out across the state in providing better speeds. Indeed, weak broadband will harm our economy, as I’ve argued before, since low speeds cramp business development, disincentivize new businesses from investing in Vermont, and fail to attract young people who increasingly rely on broadband for most aspects of life.
We know from many examples worldwide that improving broadband boosts economic performance. Higher speeds give businesses access to more customers. They open the way for providing new services and goods. Start-ups often rely on high-speed internet to launch and grow.
Vermont’s broadband situation goes beyond the economy. High-speed access is vital for education, allowing students access to rich media content and to audio- and video-conference discussions with instructors and other learners. Faster speeds give us greater opportunities for sharing media about Vermont, such as photos and video of our gorgeous landscape and rich way of life, which encourages tourism. At the same time, broadband is a quality of life issue, as we increasingly use bandwidth-intensive applications to entertain ourselves and to stay in touch with friends and family.
Unfortunately, the Scott administration has chosen to refuse this positive path forward. The governor’s speech tells us that he has made peace with our problematic bandwidth, that he sees no need for internet-fueled growth in economics, education or life. He apparently would have us sit out the digital revolution, losing a fine possibility to restart Vermont’s economic engine. As our state’s demographics age, the governor is unwilling to invest in attracting young people, even though he spoke to a drop in our working age population in this very speech. Scott would like to “turn … Vermont into an education destination for families,” but without investing in the required infrastructure.
Some, like Bill “Spaceman” Lee, argue that Vermont should resist the distractions of an always-on digital existence. They see our state as a refuge from shallow entertainment, fake news and digital exhaustion. This argument doesn’t actually apply to us. To begin with, Vermont’s speeds are so low, connections so spotty, and actual use of technology relatively rare, that we are not in danger of losing our connection to the natural world anytime soon. Moreover, neither the governor nor his administration has made this kind of cultural argument. Instead, the decision to not invest in broadband is, as far as we can discern, a financial one.
That decision will be seen as a historic mistake. I urge Gov. Scott to reconsider. We need to invest in broadband, especially for Vermont’s small towns. If he truly wants to grow our economy, this is a no-brainer. Failing to boost our connection to the world – to the future – will end up costing us dearly.